“Through this transaction process, everything is legal,” the head of Beijing Mammoth—referred to in the report as Beijing Trader 2—told investigators. (While the report authors omitted the names of individual targets, they’ve submitted this information to Chinese and Hong Kong authorities.)
— China’s ivory businesses are deeply involved in Africa. The holdings of Beijing Mammoth, for example, include African safari companies, taxidermists, and traders of live animals. “We helped Guangzhou Zoo import about 20 live elephants,” Beijing Trader 2 said.
— Trophy hunting is a legal “grey” area exploited by traders. Beijing Mammoth runs hunting safari operations in Zimbabwe and South Africa through a holding company, Beijing Tian Hao Bo Rui International Sports Exchange Ltd. From there, it can import ivory and trophies.
“You can go trophy hunting with us and take the ivory,” Beijing Trader 2 said. Three storage rooms in Beijing Mammoth’s warehouse contained large and small tusks that were labeled “from hunting,” “from Europe,” “from Africa,” and “from Mombasa.”
— Importing full trophy mounts is a way to avoid regulations. Beijing Mammoth imports rhino trophies from an affiliate in South Africa. Beijing Trader 2 described how rhino trophies are prepared by a taxidermist, shipped back to China, and then, he said, “I would place fake horns on it.” This way, the real rhino horns can be used or sold, while the full mount is available for inspections.
— Trade in rhino horn, which is easier to smuggle than elephant tusks, is conspicuous and overlaps with the ivory trade. During the investigation, at least half the investigators’ targets offered them rhino horn items such as bracelets, cups, or powders. Rhino horn often came up in conversation, according to Andrea Crosta, founder of the Elephant Action League and coauthor of the report. “For me it was surprise,” he said. “We weren’t even looking for rhino horn. One guy said he could sell as much rhino horn as he could get. It’s a thriving market.”
— The ivory industry, with affiliated companies at all levels of the supply chain, has a life of its own. Even if retail markets and profit margins decline, the vertically integrated industry is structured to persist, with ivory outlets shifting from retail stores directly to the consumer. “It’s a dangerous situation,” Crosta notes. “Even if consumers are buying less, from a business perspective the machine is still working.”
— Ivory companies are considering options to get out of the trade. Some of the biggest ivory traders met in November to discuss their future. This indicates that from an economic perspective they understand that it’s getting more difficult to be in the ivory business.
While that’s a positive development, others are betting on a rosy future for ivory. The investigation found that investors and traders have stockpiled 1,000 metric tons of illegal ivory in secret locations. The government will have to figure out how to remove all this if an ivory ban is to be feasible.
Laurel Neme is a freelance writer and author of Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.